Readjusting history through 100-year art collection

Words: Mary Corrigall

If you had to tell the story of South African art over the last 100 years, what kind of twists and turns would it take? Where would you begin?

These questions are plagued by all sorts of pertinent historical and social quandaries and gaps that can’t always be bridged retrospectively. Perhaps this is why so few curators have tried to narrate this kind of grand, century-long story. During his short-lived and contentious tenure at the Iziko SA National Gallery, Riason Naidoo was the last local curator to tackle it. The title to his opening (and almost closing) salvo exhibition at this public art museum revealed the bookends he had chosen; 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective.
     Stefan Hundt, the curator of the Sanlam Art Collection and Gallery, may be in the same position. His current exhibition, Centennial: A Century of South African Art from the Sanlam Art Collection 1918 – 2018, which has just completed a showing at the company headquarters in Cape Town and is on its way to the Sanlam Art Lounge in Johannesburg, is, as the title suggests, limited to the artworks owned by the insurance and finance giant. So, like Naidoo, he has to fashion something cohesive with a limited vocabulary. Pierneef makes an appearance again, but this narrative loosely (there are no arrows pointing this out) ‘begins’ unconventionally with Pieter Willem Frederick Wenning. 
     While works by black artists might not outnumber that by their white contemporaries, they enjoy a strong presence through good examples of works by George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto, Cyprian Shilakoe, David Koloane, Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae and Helen Sebidi. In a way, it almost seems that the inequality that persisted (and persists) in this sphere didn’t hamper their development. For Hundt no doubt, it is more a matter of writing a more balanced art history and showing the connections between artists despite prejudice and other barriers. For example, the motif of hard physical labour, as a metaphor for exploitation and social inequalities, runs through works by Dorothy Kay, Pemba and Sekoto.

A large proportion of the works are contemporary and reveal what this term might denote in relation to historical works. Confronting the nitty-gritty of reality seems to be one of the defining features

Sanlam 100-year art collection
Gerard Benghu (1910 – 1990), Zululand Landscape, circa 1948, watercolour on paper

     In theory, this sets the stage for the modernist African-driven languages that define works by Edoardo Villa, Alexis Preller and Cecil Skotnes that are hung together. Hundt has grouped the artists’ works in such a way as to advance discrete sub-plots in the 100-year tale of art development. Abstract artists such as Kenneth Bakker and Christo Coetzee serve as markers for a mode currently experiencing a revival.
     A large proportion of the works are contemporary and reveal what this term might denote in relation to historical works. Confronting the nitty-gritty of reality seems to be one of the defining features, even if it is through a layered veil of impasto paint. Pauline Gutter’s large painting of a spread of food on a dinner table in The Last Supper (2008) and Penny SiopisSalon (1987) present consumption of food, leisure activities as the means through which historical lines of privilege, betrayal and violence can be confronted.
     Ultimately, given that there are over 2 000 works in the Sanlam Art Collection, Hundt could tell a different visual perspective on the country and its expression. Or, perhaps, our history is immovable no matter how we shift the pieces of the puzzle around.
     Centennial: A Century of South African Art from the Sanlam Art Collection 1918 – 2018 will be on view at the Sanlam Art Lounge at 11 Alice Lane, Sandton, Johannesburg from 5 September to 15 December 2018. Sponsored text. Mary Corrigall is an art consultant. Visit www.corrigall.org

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